North Carolina’s civil war over its election map will stretch on for at least another week – raising more questions about whether the state’s March 15 primary takes place as scheduled. Tuesday night, Gov. Pat McCrory and other state leaders asked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to set aside a lower court order that found portions of the state’s congressional district map unconstitutional. The three-judge panel also gave the state until a week from Friday to come up with a new map. Wednesday afternoon, Roberts responded. He gave the plaintiffs in the case, including retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg school teacher Christine Bowser, until next Tuesday to respond to the state’s request for a delay. State lawyers have argued that with the primary about a month away – and with absentee ballots already being returned – any changes will throw the upcoming election into turmoil. Yet without any guarantees on when and how Roberts or the full court will rule, McCrory may be compelled to call the legislature into special session next week to meet the lower court deadline for new maps. “The timing of this process practically means the state needs to prepare … a new map, just in case the (earlier) order is upheld,” said Kareem Clayton, a Vanderbilt University election law expert who has followed the North Carolina case.
The state could also delay the congressional primaries, while holding the other elections not affected by the court fight. Similar fights over district lines led to election delays in 1998 and 2002.
“It is hard still to make a prediction,” Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law expert at the UNC School of Law, said after Roberts’ order. “Even if the legislature makes a move, who is to say that will not be challenged in the courts? Where it thus goes from here is really impossible to say.”
Rich Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California-Irvine, said Wednesday he had expected Roberts or the high court to overturn the earlier ruling and keep the current lines in place through November. Given the length that Roberts has set aside for the opponents’ response, now he’s not so sure. “If the court or Roberts were certain to stay, they wouldn’t give as much time,” he said. “But we’re reading tea leaves … As always, the Supreme Court keeps us in the dark until the last minute.”